It may seem as though I’ve disappeared but I haven’t. I have been reading, a bit less than last month since I am slowly starting to translate and work again, but I’ve got several books I would like to write about. Before I get to that, however, since I don’t have time to sort through my reading notes today, let me point out two things:
First, my review of Philippe Claudel’s novel Brodeck is up at The Quarterly Conversation and second, I came across an interesting article in the most recent issue of The American Scholar – The Decline of the English Department
Crace begins with statistics* showing that majoring in English and other Humanities is in decline, while majoring in Business is up. He outlines some of the pertinent external reasons why this might be so but then focuses on an examination of several factors coming from within English Departments themselves which could explain their failure to grow. I apologize for the long quote, but I feel this gets at the heart of Chace’s argument:
Perhaps the most telling sign of the near bankruptcy of the discipline is the silence from within its ranks. In the face of one skeptical and disenchanted critique after another, no one has come forward in years to assert that the study of English (or comparative literature or similar undertakings in other languages) is coherent, does have self-limiting boundaries, and can be described as this but not that.
Such silence strongly suggests a complicity of understanding, with the practitioners in agreement that to teach English today is to do, intellectually, what one pleases. No sense of duty remains toward works of English or American literature; amateur sociology or anthropology or philosophy or comic books or studies of trauma among soldiers or survivors of the Holocaust will do. You need not even believe that works of literature have intelligible meaning; you can announce that they bear no relationship at all to the world beyond the text. Nor do you need to believe that literary history is helpful in understanding the books you teach; history itself can be shucked aside as misleading, irrelevant, or even unknowable. In short, there are few, if any, fixed rules or operating principles to which those teaching English and American literature are obliged to conform. With everything on the table, and with foundational principles abandoned, everyone is free, in the classroom or in prose, to exercise intellectual laissez-faire in the largest possible way—I won’t interfere with what you do and am happy to see that you will return the favor. Yet all around them a rich literature exists, extraordinary books to be taught to younger minds.
Chace’s frustration seems to lie in the continual off-centering (and he does attempt to locate a traditional center) of English departments, and what he might call a frantic race to embrace the multi-cultural and multi-faceted aspect of “English” as it’s understood today. While that embrace might be admirable, he feels we’ve gone in that direction at the expense of constructing a “coherent” discipline.
I know that many of you are English / Humanities professors or, like me, come out of and are committed to the discipline and I’d love to hear some of your reactions to his argument.
*Crace’s statistics include English, Philosophy, History, Languages and then as a comparison, Business. His article focuses exclusively on English, but the decline in History is just as significant and I am curious what he might suggest to explain this similar failure, since I think of History as a very coherent discipline, with fairly rigid boundaries and so forth. I’m not saying his argument about English doesn’t hold, I’m just wondering about the similar drop in History and if it might be explained in similar terms.